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China Hits Back at Western Sanctions

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Beijing issues sanctions against Western politicians and diplomats, authorities censor coverage of a mysterious explosion in a village near Guangzhou, and China grapples with vaccine diplomacy woes.

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China Issues Sanctions Against U.S. Allies

China responded to coordinated sanctions by the United States, the European Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom against Chinese officials involved in atrocities in Xinjiang with its own targeted figures, ranging from German politicians to Swedish researchers. Beijing’s move is a significant escalation, especially in its scattershot approach.

Here’s why: The Chinese sanctions go after U.S. allies, especially in the EU, more so than U.S. figures themselves. One target is the Germany-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, the largest China-focused think tank in Europe. China is presumably attempting to pull countries away from what it sees as a U.S.-led bloc against Beijing and to dissuade the EU from further sanctions, which it hasn’t deployed against China since 1989.

Already, Beijing’s move has derailed the controversial Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China, and caused 281 German lawmakers to sign a fiery statement.

Explicitly using sanctions against researchers is a new step for Beijing. China has previously targeted academics, such as the so-called Xinjiang 13, with visa bans, and concerns over research being limited or visas being cancelled have affected Western scholarship. Universities have often failed to offer support to targeted scholars, in part because administrators expect China’s specialists to help attract Chinese students or operate joint campuses. Washington’s increasing attention on Beijing may now put more domestic political pressure on universities.

China’s aggressive pushback over criticism of its abuses in Xinjiang has also produced a sudden focus on historical U.S. and European atrocities, in a revival of Soviet-style whataboutism. On Tuesday, government spokesperson Hua Chunying brought up a medley of accusations to deflect from the Chinese state’s atrocities. One graphic from state outlet the Global Times blamed the EU, in a single page, for the Holocaust, Finnish parliamentary racism, and the gender pay gap in Luxembourg.

Finally, China is attempting to coerce businesses into abandoning boycotts of Xinjiang cotton. A coordinated online campaign is being directed against H&M, which stopped sourcing from Xinjiang last year. It’s not clear why the Swedish firm is the initial target as many retailers have made similar statements, but it could be linked to Beijing’s general animus toward Sweden. The campaign is likely to broaden. Foreign firms in China are already getting calls from local officials to clarify their positions on Xinjiang, seeking reassurance they won’t take action.

What We’re Following

Alaska aftermath. As predicted, the meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials in Alaska yielded an ugly and public exchange of grievances. On the Chinese side, the vitriol was likely driven by concerns about political positions back home; officials sought the good press of standing up for Beijing. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who issued a particularly fervent denunciation of the United States, is an experienced, foreign-educated diplomat who has cozied up to U.S. officials as often as he’s finger-wagged at them.

Behind closed doors, the mood was reportedly at least businesslike, with attempts to establish clear lines of communication between the Biden team and the Chinese government and a relatively positive final readout from Xinhua News Agency.

Other Chinese Communist Party officials, meanwhile, were stuck with the less glamorous task of meetings with the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). CPUSA, which has fewer than 10,000 members, puts a reasonable amount of effort into maintaining ties with communist parties worldwide, although they are unsurprisingly more interested in those that hold actual political power. Given the lack of deep knowledge of the West among senior CCP officials, I wouldn’t be surprised if the CPUSA and other groups have successfully exaggerated their own influence in Beijing.

Mysterious explosion. Coverage of an explosion that killed at least five people in the village of Minjiang, now effectively a suburb of Guangzhou, has disappeared from the Chinese internet. Local authorities initially reported a “criminal incident.” Such censorship is normal in China, where disasters or attacks that would be front-page news in other countries are dropped into the memory hole by authorities.

Bombings are particularly sensitive in China because the official line is the crackdown in Xinjiang has ended terrorism. It’s worth noting that Chinese officials now say Xinjiang was a hotbed of terror and militancy from 2009 until 2017; although at the time, news reports often censored attacks in the region. 

Post-Atlanta debate. The killing of eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta, Georgia, has sparked distress and reflection in the United States. For Asian American government and security professionals, the attack has stirred existing concerns about discrimination. The U.S. security clearance process regularly excludes Chinese Americans and State Department assignment restrictions that prevent some Asian Americans from working on countries where they have family ties.

Tech and Business

Staff members transport the second batch of the Sinovac vaccine donated by China at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on March 24.

Staff members transport the second batch of the Sinovac vaccine donated by China at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on March 24.

Staff members transport the second batch of the Sinovac vaccine donated by China at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on March 24.Xinhua/ROUELLE UMALI via Getty Images

Vaccine woes. China has failed to release the data for its primary COVID-19 vaccine, raising serious concerns about its efficacy, especially since early tests showed poor results. Because of China’s early success against the coronavirus, testing was largely undertaken in other countries, mostly with younger volunteers. The vaccine isn’t being given out to those over 59 years old, reportedly due to their lack of inclusion in testing groups.

The lack of data presents an obstacle for China’s vaccine diplomacy. Countries with few alternatives, such as Pakistan, or those with a raging crisis, such as Brazil, have little choice but to get shots as quickly as possible. (The Brazilian elite are seeking out better alternatives.) But richer countries with more choices, such as Singapore, are electing not to use Chinese doses for now, waiting until Western vaccines arrive. 

Data restrictions. Chinese regulators have issued tough new policies on the personal data that private firms can demand from users, a long-term public concern. But for now, while the authorities are demanding private firms comply with new limits, there is no enforcement mechanism. The move is likely one of the authorities’ attempts this year to break up bigger platforms and create a more competitive environment online.

Almost all Chinese applications currently demand real-name identification through a national identification number, part of the government’s own campaign to deanonymize and control the online sphere—making data leaks all the more damaging for users. The government wants the data it needs, such as who is making political posts or taking taxis to meet dissidents, but not the data on consumer habits that companies love to sell to one another.

Shopping champion. In another blow to beleaguered Alibaba, the relatively new e-commerce site Pinduoduo has overtaken long-term giant JD.com to become the top online shopping platform in China. It’s a sign of just how separate the Chinese internet is from the rest of the world that neither JD.com nor Pinduoduo have significant recognition outside the country. But Pinduoduo’s successful gamification of online shopping, along with its short-streaming content, is a model that Western firms are likely to try to borrow from.

As with many unicorn start-ups, Pinduoduo is fundamentally underpinned by venture capital right now. The firm lost $1.1 billion last year and has burnt through $13 billion paying vendors to offer cheaper goods. Unless it can switch gears, it may burn out as so many other major Chinese online ventures, from coupon discounts to bike sharing, have.

What We’re Reading 

Beijing Lights, by 黄陈匡 Kuang

This beautifully done interview series from the streets of Beijing highlights working-class stories and shows a side of Chinese life often forgotten amid glitzy skyscrapers and technology apps. Kuang interviews homeless people, street vendors, booksellers, and retirees, painting a picture of a lively but tough city. “The cause of most of the suffering I’ve had in my life was that I’m a woman,” one storekeeper reflected, discussing miscarriages and domestic violence.

A recurring theme is mutual aid among the poor. “That woman selling boxed lunches is seriously disabled. … Every day, I help her carry stuff. As a way to thank me, she often cooks tofu with rice noodles for me. Knowing I have bad teeth, she cooks the food longer than usual to make it easier to chew,” a railway vendor said. “See? This world still has more good people than it does bad.”

That’s it for this week.

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It’s Time to Prepare for U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan

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When the Biden administration took office, it faced two unpalatable policy choices in Afghanistan: withdraw all remaining U.S. troops by May 1, as stipulated in an agreement inked with the Taliban in Doha a year ago, and risk increased destabilization or stay beyond the deadline and watch the Taliban tear up its accord with Washington and scuttle a nascent peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Biden administration has sought to circumvent this Catch-22 situation by pursuing two alternative options. One is to negotiate a brief extension of the May 1 deadline, thereby buying U.S. President Joe Biden time to produce more favorable conditions—especially reductions in violence—for peace negotiations and an eventual U.S. withdrawal. The other is to propose a new peace plan that establishes a violence reduction accord and accelerates negotiations on a political settlement—all in a matter of weeks.

Both initiatives are worth trying, but each one will be highly difficult to achieve. Additionally, given the large amount of policy bandwidth required to achieve just one of these ambitious goals, devoting extensive energy to both of them actually makes success more unlikely for either of them. Accordingly, if Washington isn’t successful, it should plan for a withdrawal as soon as is logistically possible.

Unfortunately, recent reports indicate that Biden is considering keeping troops in Afghanistan until November—with no indication that the Taliban has agreed to that or that the administration has even pitched an extension to the Taliban. Neither Kabul nor the Taliban has committed to the peace plan.

The Biden administration confronts a constellation of bad options, but unilaterally staying on well beyond May 1 is the worst.

The Taliban has long insisted its core goal is the removal of all foreign forces. It would demand a lot in return for a withdrawal extension, such as the release of Taliban prisoners and steps to remove United Nations sanctions on the group—both unmet U.S. commitments in the Doha deal—and a new interim Afghan government that President Ashraf Ghani has categorically rejected.

If U.S. and Afghan officials say yes, they would lose critical future bargaining chips in exchange for an extension that’s likely to be at most several months, since the Taliban won’t agree to anything more. Unless a Taliban cease-fire is part of the package, Washington and Kabul are unlikely to give up so much.

And if Washington tries to work around a resistant Ghani with this move, it risks provoking a serious diplomatic crisis with Afghanistan and a fresh political crisis in Kabul—and at the worst possible time.

Meanwhile, the administration’s new peace plan features elements that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will like. It calls for the interim government that Ghani rejects. It also calls for an eventual cease-fire, free and fair elections, and a new constitution that protects women’s rights—all elements the Taliban has either rejected or refused to endorse. Getting Kabul and the Taliban to agree on these issues—and especially in so little time—is a very tall order. On March 23, Reuters reported that Ghani has rejected the new peace plan and will be announcing a counterproposal that calls for new elections within the next six months. That’s an unrealistic option, given the difficulty of preparing for and holding polls in so little time and in such a violent environment.

Accordingly, if, as expected, these long-shot plans fall short, Washington should plan to depart as close to May 1 as possible—not because it’s a good option but because staying on unilaterally would be even worse.

Indeed, the Taliban would declare its deal with the United States and its talks with Kabul null and void. The best chance yet to end 40 years of conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion, would be squandered. The United States would be dragged back into a war that it badly wants to exit. A U.S. mission focused on training, advising, and counterterrorism would find itself back in the crosshairs of a ferocious Taliban insurgency. Afghanistan’s horrifying violence would escalate and as always, civilians would pay the biggest price.

There would also be domestic political costs for Biden. He has long opposed an extended U.S. military presence because he believes the U.S. public wouldn’t support it. Indeed, if the United States stays beyond May 1, its troops would be in greater danger, fresh infusions of war funding would be needed even as the United States continues to focus on recovering from pandemic-induced economic strain, and the specter would loom of an eventual U.S. withdrawal under Taliban fire. Public opinion wouldn’t react well to any of this.

In fairness, the consequences of a May 1 withdrawal could also be catastrophic: An emboldened Taliban, smelling victory and sensing a tremendous battlefield advantage, could ramp up its efforts to seize power by force, returning the country to an increasingly violent civil war.

But the United States has not been a wholly stabilizing force in Afghanistan. Even with U.S. boots on the ground, the country has suffered through record-breaking civilian casualty figures and a relentless targeted killing campaign against civil society. And the Taliban has advanced across the country. Today, it controls more territory than at any time since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago.

That said, the threat of more violence after a U.S. departure is very real—if not inevitable.

This is why Washington must lead a diplomatic full-court press that enlists regional governments (especially Pakistan, the Taliban’s chief patron, along with U.S. rivals China, Iran, and Russia) and the international donor community to convince the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire once U.S. troops have withdrawn.

There is an irony here that might work in Washington’s favor. Many key regional players are rivals of the United States and would welcome a U.S. military withdrawal. However, their interests are not served by the hastened destabilization that could ensue from a withdrawal. By working with the United States to push the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire, they would be aiming for an outcome that lessens the consequences of destabilization—more violence, increased refugee flows, an intensified drug trade, grim prospects for economic investment—that they so fear. For the Biden administration, which favors multilateral diplomacy with partners and rivals alike to pursue shared interests, this should be a logical strategy to pursue.

Washington should fully exploit its remaining tools of leverage: Refuse to fulfill any of its remaining Doha deal obligations with the Taliban until insurgents commit to a cease-fire. Threaten to withhold hypothetical future aid to the Taliban—the group has indicated it would welcome aid if it gains power in a post-war government—if it doesn’t reduce violence and stay at the negotiating table. A strong message should be delivered: If you reject a global consensus calling for a cease-fire, even after the U.S. troop withdrawal, then you jeopardize the legitimacy and recognition you seek.

To be sure, a withdrawal will complicate Washington’s ability to maintain a counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan, a top Biden administration goal. Salvaging this capacity without boots on the ground will not be easy. But the United States would have options.

First, it can work with Afghanistan and regional players—China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the Central Asia states—to establish a new intelligence-sharing mechanism to monitor the location and movements of terrorists. Many of these countries don’t get along with Washington, but they all share its concerns about al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Second, the actual targeting of terrorists in Afghanistan would require the United States to base arrangements in neighboring countries. Pakistan and Uzbekistan are the two most logical candidates. Domestic political factors (sensitivities about the presence of U.S. troops in Pakistan and a ban on foreign military bases in Uzbekistan) would pose immense obstacles. However, both countries have previously hosted U.S. forces, and Washington’s relations with each are—for now—relatively stable. If Washington can somehow get their buy-in, it would only need Kabul’s assent.

And yet, this may all put the cart before the horse. Many proponents of an extended U.S. military presence warn that a withdrawal would cause Afghanistan to become an international terror sanctuary that would threaten U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland. However, the ability of a badly degraded al Qaeda, despite its continued links to the Taliban and other militant groups, to plan and mount attacks on the United States is questionable. So is that of the Islamic State, which has suffered major losses in its strongholds in Afghanistan over the last year.

Before Washington frets about how to maintain a counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan with no boots on the ground, it must determine if that capacity is actually needed. It should prepare intelligence assessments that ascertain if a full U.S. troop departure would indeed increase the risk of international terrorism—and what factors would need to be in place to generate this heightened risk.

There are no good U.S. options in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban rejects a troop extension and the new U.S. peace plan fails to get traction, Washington should cut its losses, withdraw its remaining forces, and use diplomacy and leverage to mitigate the risks associated with the least bad option.

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Beijing’s Schadenfreude Over the Capitol Riots Conceals Deep Anxiety

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Nearly three months on, the echoes of Jan. 6 continue to reverberate globally. The pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was unquestionably a political crisis for the United States. But it was also a boon for China’s propagandists, who, with righteous indignation, decried the country’s “election chaos” and chortled gleefully at the sight of the carnage on full display. In a house editorial, the Global Times did not mince words, saying: “The chaos [was] caused by the election. The unprecedented mob in the Capitol, a symbol of the U.S. system, is the result of the U.S. society’s severe division and the country’s failure to control such division.” All of China’s major party outlets, including the People’s Daily, China Daily, and the Xinhua News Agency, echoed the same message: Democracy produces chaos.

At first glance, these commentaries appear to merely be opportunistic U.S.-bashing by Beijing. Beyond this facade, however, China’s rhetoric reflects a deep-seated—if unspoken—anxiety that its own country will be thrust into an even more violent and protracted political power transition at some point in the future. In this context, China’s harsh critiques of the Jan. 6 riots offer a rare glimpse into China’s fears at this important moment—the fraught interim period before Chinese President Xi Jinping officially takes up his third—and unprecedented in the post-Mao era—presidential term at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022.

To understand the power and pervasiveness of contemporary Chinese fears of messy political power transitions, a brief history is essential. Former Chairman Mao Zedong’s first two chosen successors—Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao—both died under mysterious circumstances after they had crossed him. When Mao himself died in 1976, the weakness of his chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, precipitated a series of intraparty factional power struggles that concluded when party stalwart Deng Xiaoping emerged victorious nearly three years later.

Immediately upon taking power, Deng and his supporters buried Mao’s cult of personality and gradually instituted a system of one-party rule intended to create and institutionalize methods of policymaking and leadership succession. Term limits on the presidency, age limits for senior leaders, and the selection of a pre-appointed successor were among the policies instituted to avoid the wasteful and debilitating intra-party factionalism that had marred the post-Mao years. But these reforms to China’s leadership succession process came to a halt in the spring of 1989, when tanks rolled into Beijing at the behest of a coalition of political and military hard-liners who used extralegal means to remove General Secretary Zhao Ziyang.

By the 2000s, having watched political power transfer from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, China confidently declared it had solved the succession problem. In his Sept. 1, 2004 resignation letter to the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Jiang wrote that for the good of the party’s long-term development and the people, he “had always looked forward to the complete retirement from leading positions.” In truth, despite his titular retirement, Jiang and his loyalists (known as the Shanghai group) retained considerable influence throughout Hu’s term as party secretary, which they used to amass vast riches.

In the years that followed, some party leaders sought to institutionalize (as opposed to personalize) governance in China. They worked to create a more representative one-party political system that they dubbed “intraparty democracy” or “deliberative democracy.” One prominent advocate was the former vice chairman of the Central Party School, Li Junru. In his 2015 bookDeliberative Democracy: Interpreting China’s Democratic System, Li explained that “deliberative democracy” means party leaders should seek to “achieve solidarity in democratic consultation by way of dialogue on equal footing, seeking common grounds while reserving differences, and advocating unity while not giving up struggle.”

“Deliberative democracy,” Li argued, would ensure that “China is not a country of despotism.”

This political trajectory, however, has been fundamentally reversed by China’s current president, Xi. Upon assuming power in 2012, Xi set out to remove the residual influence of the Shanghai group, as well as that of his predecessor Hu and his loyalists (known as the Youth League group). Xi has purged dozens of Jiang loyalists, including Gen. Xu Caihou and Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission Zhou Yongkang, and in 2016, Xi announced sweeping changes to the Youth League that neutered its potential to create future leaders.

In the run-up to Xi’s abolition of presidential term limits in 2018, many within the party expressed private (and sometimes even public) concerns about the decision. In Beijing, there was a palpable sense of shock among many Chinese elites who feared a return to one-man rule. In February 2018, just before Xi successfully repealed presidential term limits and changed the country’s constitution, Li Datong, the former editor of party mouthpiece China Youth Daily, warned that amending the constitution to let Xi rule indefinitely would “sow the seeds of chaos.” Li lamented: “If there are no term limits on a country’s highest leader, then we are returning to an imperial regime. My generation has lived through Mao. That era is over. How can we possibly go back to it?”

Li subsequently sought refuge in London, but others like him who have spoken out against Xi have disappeared, been fined, and were sentenced to years in prison. Those who have been able to do so have left China, as Xi has tightened control and abolished any semblance of opposition.

The official press critiques of the United States’ failed insurrection provide a peep into Chinese fears of what is likely to happen after Xi exits the political scene. Such anxieties are well warranted because, like Mao before him, Xi has consolidated power and kept his would-be successors weak—or worse.

Soon after the 2018 constitutional change, the Chinese press was quick to remind the world that today’s China is very different than it was during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, at the highest levels of government, Xi’s China has gone far beyond the Cultural Revolution in terms of the number of those arrested or stripped of their party membership. In his first term as president, between 2012 to 2018, Xi disciplined 35 members of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, as many as between 1949 and 2012. Today’s advanced technology mean even Politburo members are under constant surveillance. But while Xi’s “coup proofing” will probably ensure he remains unchallenged in life, after he is gone, the current mirage of stability and harmony is likely to devolve into an intraparty battle royale for control of the country.

Many Chinese understand this problem all too well but hold their tongues for safety’s sake. For them, the events of Jan. 6 not only provide some welcome schadenfreude at the United States’ expense, but they also give them political cover to express their fears about the long-term implications of Xi’s power grab. In this way, China’s response to the Capitol Hill insurrection, which at first blush appeared to be merely a show of national strength and confidence, actually belies heartfelt concerns among tens of millions of Chinese elites that, someday, their country too will face its own messy and prolonged power transition.

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Erdogan’s Power Plays Turn to Profit Margins

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While conventional wisdom has it that for-profit corporations pursue profit at the expense of all else, they are not obliged to: In fact, modern corporate law neither dictates profit maximization nor second-guesses board decisions about what is best for a company. But Turkey’s trade ministry begs to differ. The ministry is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against a joint-stock company for exactly that—allegedly failing to prioritize profits.

If the charge seems speculative and ill-founded, that’s because it is. Nevertheless, a ruling in favor of the prosecution would enable the Turkish government to take over the firm in its crosshairs. And that has consequences: Not only would such a verdict strike down economic freedoms—serving as the final nail in the coffin of Turkish private property rights—but it would also create a bogus precedent whereby President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can effectively nullify his political foes. That bears a financial cost nobody—not even Erdogan—can afford.

The company in question is Anadolu Kultur, one of Turkey’s leading arts and culture institutions and the brainchild of Osman Kavala, a prominent Turkish entrepreneur and philanthropist. Since establishing Anadolu Kultur—which remains privately held—in 2002, Kavala has been a generous benefactor of numerous initiatives that seek to document and restore minority heritage sites and intercommunal reconciliation projects across Turkey. Though these efforts have won Kavala a whole slate of awards, including the European Archaeological Heritage Prize, they have also landed him on Erdogan’s hit list.

Anadolu Kultur is the epitome of everything Erdogan despises: a business that refuses to become his client and toe his ideological line. Kavala’s tireless efforts to protect and highlight Turkey’s diversity—whether ethnic, religious, or sexual—and nurture pluralism through grassroots projects are a direct threat to Erdogan’s imagined monolith of a nation of heterosexual Turkish Sunni Muslim men and their obedient wives and daughters. For the Turkish president, the battle over Anadolu Kultur is an existential culture war that threatens the very foundations of his ethno-religious engineering project.

The Turkish president has found ways to target his ideological foe under practical pretenses. Erdogan insists—without substantiation—that Kavala “financed terrorists” during the Gezi Park protests, a series of nationwide demonstrations that shook the Justice and Development Party-led government in 2013. Authorities first arrested Kavala for the charge in 2017. After an acquittal in a Turkish court—and a European Court of Human Rights ruling in his favor—Kavala has remained in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison outside Istanbul for over three years. So far, in court, Erdogan’s opinion of Kavala appears to have greater weight than (the lack of) any evidence against him. New charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” brought only hours after of Kavala’s acquittal in February 2020, could lend him a life sentence without parole.

The Turkish government, however, is not satisfied with simply locking Kavala up. Ankara also wants to take over Anadolu Kultur and shutter it for good. Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board combed through 10 years of company documents and bank records to no avail; government inspectors were not able to find even a single irregularity. This should come as no surprise given that Anadolu Kultur’s board of directors is a who’s who of reputable figures with distinguished records of upholding their fiduciary duties across various sectors.

Anadolu Kultur’s sound corporate governance forced Ankara to improvise by way of legal “innovation,” and that is how Turkey’s trade ministry in February invented the crime of failing to prioritize profits. It’s an especially odd accusation given that Anadolu Kultur is not publicly traded and thus has no shareholders to which it reports. But the Turkish government claims Kavala’s company operates “in a similar way to associations and foundations,” which poses a threat to “public order.” For Erdogan, the work Anadolu Kultur and other like-minded for-profit and nonprofit entities undertake to advocate for gender equality, Kurdish and LGBTI rights, and reconciliation with Armenia—among other pluralist causes—is an existential threat to the ideological straitjacket he would like to force upon the Turkish citizenry.

The lawsuit against Anadolu Kultur isn’t happening in a vacuum. Turkish businesses have been on edge for a while. After the failed coup attempt in 2016, the Erdogan government seized assets worth at least $11 billion from nearly 1,000 businesses allegedly linked to Erdogan-ally-turned-archnemesis Fethullah Gulen—a religious cleric Ankara accuses of masterminding the putsch—which led to a steady erosion of private property rights in the country. This economic crackdown and subsequent financial mismanagement prompted the biggest outflows from Turkey’s debt and equity markets in more than a decade and also dried up foreign direct investment from Ankara’s traditional economic partners in the West. In short, it has benefited no one—not even Erdogan. Now, as Ankara is poised to effectively criminalize corporate social responsibility—that is, prioritizing factors other than revenue—the economic ramifications promise to be even more momentous.

Ironically, a profitable Anadolu Kultur is the opposite of what the Turkish government actually wants. Ankara would much rather see the company go bankrupt, but Anadolu Kultur’s talented executives and their sound management practices make that highly unlikely. As a result, the Turkish president has pretended to be invested in its success—all so he can take over Anadolu Kultur and liquidate it. This would, in Erdogan’s view, not only eliminate the nuisance posed by Kavala and his company but also have a chilling effect on others who might dare to follow in his footsteps and promote pluralism, diversity, and social inclusion through for-profit entities.

If an Istanbul court rules as Erdogan wishes, it will open up a new era of judicial second-guessing on how best to serve for-profit corporations. The late Cornell Law School professor Lynn Stout noted that forcing companies to pursue profit at the expense of all else could carry unintended consequences—including an easy out for mistreating employees, customers, communities, and the environment. Stout also warned that a focus on short-term earnings could curtail investment and innovation. Indeed, as numerous U.S. states begin to allow corporate boards to consider social or environmental objectives ahead of profits through benefit-corporation laws, Ankara seems to be going in the opposite direction.

Erdogan’s pursuit of Turkey’s dissident businesspeople and their companies by way of tortured legal cases will inevitably have a distorting effect on economic behavior at home while also scaring off international investors. Anadolu Kultur has a long history of working with numerous Western for-profit and nonprofit entities, such as the World Monuments Fund, European Cultural Foundation, British Council, and Goethe-Institut. What guarantee do these organizations have that such a precedent won’t target or pressure their Turkey-based representatives or partners in the future?

Ankara should look to the Asia-Pacific for a warning that economic pressure campaigns carry real consequences for all involved. China’s “mainlandization” of Hong Kong’s judicial system and undermining of its Basic Law have had grave effects on international business. Since Beijing’s definition of national security includes finance and economic activities, analysts warn that its heavy-handed meddling could trigger a capital flight, putting Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub in jeopardy. In a global index of the competitiveness of financial centers, Hong Kong’s rating has declined 42 points within the last two years—from its all-time high of 783 in March 2019 to 741 in March 2021.

Istanbul, also once considered a global financial center, has already suffered a much more dramatic decline: 65 points since its all-time high in September 2014. The city now ranks as the 74th most competitive financial hub in the world, a 10-place slide since September 2020 alone. Last year, Turkey experienced the biggest outflows from its debt and equity markets in more than a decade. In 2019, Turkey’s FDI net inflows, excluding real estate, nosedived to their lowest point within the last 15 years—hitting a negative in 2020, the first since October 2000. And this week, Erdogan’s erratic meddling in financial markets—reshuffling the central bank chief for the fourth time in five years—led to a meltdown in Turkey’s currency and stock market. In short: Erdogan’s efforts to remedy Western capital flight with investments from his ideological ally Qatar—which injected $22 billion within the last five years alone and now accounts for 15 percent of Turkey’s FDI stock—are not sustainable. Attacks on domestic corporations with which he is ideologically at odds will come back to hurt the entire Turkish populace.

If the Turkish economy really can’t take any more hits, why is Erdogan going to such lengths just to target Anadolu Kultur? Support for his party is currently at an all-time low, according to one survey, and the Turkish president knows there is not much he can do to salvage the economy before Turkey’s next elections in 2023. But Erdogan believes—perhaps correctly—that he can still win the culture war. To do this, he must polarize the public through controversy, whether over ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual identity. The Turkish president’s bombshell announcement on March 20 that he was withdrawing Turkey from the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women resulted from a similar calculation. Left with empty coffers, Erdogan is doubling down with ideological warfare.

For Turkey—already suffering from a chronic current account deficit and rampant unemployment—further tampering with the market may prove to be a very costly way to muzzle dissidents and close loyalist ranks. That makes it all the more unwise. Indeed, the all-out assault on Osman Kavala and his businesses could boomerang in a way that Turkey’s iron-fisted president may soon regret.

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Trump Got China All Wrong. Now Biden Is Too.

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Of all the Trump administration’s many foreign-policy missteps, its confrontational stance on China was perhaps the most ungainly. Spurts of negotiation on trade and intellectual property were followed by escalating tariffs on Chinese imports that were paid by U.S. companies. These provoked retaliatory Chinese actions that necessitated tens of billions of dollars of aid to U.S farmers decimated by the collapse of Chinese agricultural purchases. Tough talk by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, about Chinese human rights transgressions fell with a thud because of Trump’s inability to muster international support. His threats were made even more toothless by the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Even if one agreed that the United States needed to stand up to China on some issues, Trump’s approach only succeeded in increasing animosity and reducing Chinese investment and purchases from the United States. It changed the basic parameters of the two countries’ relationship not a whit. The trade deficit remained astronomical (not necessarily a bad thing but which Trump cited as a reason for his policies), factories remained offshore, there was no end to China’s human rights violations, and China’s influence increased globally.

Now, U.S. President Joe Biden appears to be adopting large swaths of Trump’s policies and even many of the former president’s basic presumptions, namely that China is the United States’ main adversary and that even though there are many areas of mutual interest and cooperation between the two, competition is the hallmark of an increasingly tense relationship.

Those ideas were wrong under Trump. They remain so under Biden.

The tense meeting last week between senior U.S. and Chinese foreign-policy officials in Anchorage, Alaska, made for a juicy news story. Headlines ranged from “‘Tough’ U.S.-China talks signal rocky start to relations under Biden” to “Bitter Alaska Meeting Complicates Already Shaky U.S.-China Ties.” And the public and apparently impromptu back-and-forth between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was indeed notably candid. Blinken said China’s actions on multiple fronts, from treatment of the Uyghurs to suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” Yang shot back that the U.S. government “abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges and incite some countries to attack China.” It reeks of hypocrisy, he continued, for the United States to criticize China on human rights given U.S. racism against Black and Asian Americans.

In the rest of the talks, the newly minted Biden administration reaffirmed the Trump administration’s aggressive policies of treating China as the main adversary of the United States. Hostility was evident, and there was little mention of a next round of trade deals or lifting the tariffs currently placed on Chinese imports by the U.S. government. In fact, the meeting was both preceded and followed by announcements of more U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights violations in Hong Kong and against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

To be fair to the Biden team, a confrontational stance toward China enjoys broad public support. The idea that China is a rising adversary that threatens the long-term position of the United States and potentially the global order is widespread. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly half of all U.S. citizens see China as their country’s greatest enemy, nearly double the rate of last year’s. What’s more, a majority of people believe China is an economic threat to the United States and to the future well-being of individual Americans. Although good polling data is hard to come by in China, social media posts and assorted other ways of gauging opinion make it fair to say that many in China share similarly hostile views of the United States.

The fact, however, that popular opinion sees China as a threat does not mean that policy should be determined on that basis. Public opinion is notably fickle and variable on foreign-policy issues, and it depends greatly on how officials and the media frame them. Most Americans in 1959 were convinced there was a missile gap with the Soviet Union that imperiled the United States because that’s what they heard every day. But there wasn’t one, and public opinion was a derivative of public messaging, not vice versa. Today, the sense that China represents a threat is deep but also inchoate.

During the heat of the Cold War, there was a legitimate—albeit overblown—fear that a world of communist states would hobble the United States economically. Today, a parallel fear of a rising power with a domestic ideology at odds with Western liberal democracy makes far less sense: China is a capitalist autocracy that has shown no interest in globalizing its particular form of communism. Its domestic market has vastly enriched U.S. and multinational companies. That is even with its rampant intellectual property violations, much of which is in the past now that Chinese companies have their own domestic intellectual property in 5G and artificial intelligence. The rise of China has created an economic boom for the United States and other more developed economies, ranging from Japan to Thailand to Germany, even if its rise has accelerated the transition of the United States away from being a lower-end manufacturing powerhouse.

It’s also not clear if China’s aggression in East Asia “threatens the rules-based global order” or if it simply threatens the U.S. position as hegemon of global order. Those may be one and the same from a traditional Washington-strategic perspective, but that doesn’t mean that they are, in fact, identical

Even if one believes that China is a profound threat, the tactics deployed by Trump and now the Biden administration are woefully not up to the task of forcing Beijing to reconsider its behavior. China is sufficiently powerful that tactics, which once might have had teeth, are now ineffective. Sanctioning a few dozen Chinese officials for human rights abuses will do nothing to alter Beijing’s behavior in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, and tariffs have caused sufficient pain to be effectively coercive. Lecturing will be met by lecturing. The United States has never had to confront an economic and military power that it cannot coerce easily nor confront directly; the sheer economic interdependence of today’s world makes a Cold War-era showdown an almost unusable two-edged sword.

The result is that by continuing a domestically popular aggressive stance, the Biden administration has squandered a chance to map out a realistic strategy for a completely new competitor in a post-pandemic world. Toughness in the face of China may be good domestic politics, but it is still bad policy if the goal is enhancing U.S. economic power and global security. The Trump administration failed to achieve any of its goals; the sooner the Biden administration charts a new course, the better.

Dozens Killed In Myanmar’s ‘Bloodiest Day’

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A man lays flowers at the site of a makeshift memorial, where at least five people died from gunshot wounds the day before while attending a demonstration against the military coup, in Yangon on March 4, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Violence against Myanmar’s protesters escalates, the ICC chief prosecutor plans to probe alleged war crimes committed in Palestinian territories, and OPEC+ meets to decide oil output. 

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Myanmar Violence Escalates in Bloodiest Day Yet

At least 38 people were killed in Myanmar on Wednesday as military forces dramatically escalated their use of violence against protesters. The overall death toll in the past month has now eclipsed the official toll of those who died in the country’s so-called Saffron Revolution, which lasted for three months in 2007 before a crackdown by the military, also known as the Tatmadaw.

Those killed on Wednesday include at least four children, according to a statement from Save the Children.

The speed with which the violence has increased over the past week is an indication that international efforts to deescalate tensions following the Feb. 1 military coup have been unsuccessful.

Tatmadaw defiant. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. special envoy on Myanmar, said the killings marked the “bloodiest day” since the coup. She also outlined how her conversation with Myanmar’s deputy military chief Soe Win went when she warned that more sanctions could be coming for the country’s military leaders. “The answer was: ‘We are used to sanctions, and we survived’,” she said. “When I also warned they will go in an isolation, the answer was: ‘We have to learn to walk with only few friends.’”

Even those few friends—notably China, India, Japan, and Singapore—have so far proved unwilling, or simply unable, to convince the military to walk back its power grab.

Dark days ahead. While the bravery of the millions who have taken to the streets shows no sign of ebbing and the military show no appetite to back down, more bloody days must be expected. In the longer term, the options for the United States to exercise influence are limited, but not hopeless. As Foreign Policy columnist Stephen M. Walt explains, the Biden administration, along with its allies, could offer a balance to Myanmar’s increasing dependence on China, an issue that unnerves the junta, as an incentive for Myanmar’s military to alter its repressive course.

What We’re Following Today 

Israel condemns ICC investigation. The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has announced plans to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli forces and Hamas in the Palestinian territories from June 2014 onwards. The Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry referred to the move as a “long-awaited step,” while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin condemned it as “scandalous.”

In a statement referring to the Palestinian “situation,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken opposed the ICC decision and questioned its jurisdiction. Writing in Foreign Policy, Sari Bashi gives an overview of the “complicated” relationship the United States has always had with the ICC and calls for the lifting of Trump-era sanctions on its officials.

OPEC+ meets. OPEC+ member states meet today to decide on oil production levels for the coming months, as oil prices have recovered from the dramatic drops seen last year. With producers confident of a recovery in the global economy in the coming year, an increase in overall output is likely, Bloomberg reports, but the exact terms will be decided on today.

AfD under surveillance. Germany’s domestic intelligence service has placed the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) under surveillance over its links to extremism. It is the first time in the country’s postwar history that a democratically elected party has been targeted under laws in place to protect the German constitution. AfD leaders have accused the German state of acting “purely politically” with federal elections approaching in September.

Capitol police issue warning. The police force responsible for securing the U.S. Capitol has warned of a possible plot to storm government buildings today, citing recent intelligence it received. March 4 is a popular date among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory due to its connection to the supposed return of Donald Trump as president, although the Daily Beast reports that main influencers within the movement now dismiss the date’s significance.

The news came as the acting chief of U.S. Capitol Police asked for a 21 percent increase in the force’s budget to cover security upgrades. The U.S. Capitol complex remains ringed by high security fences, with 5,000 National Guard troops providing additional protection.

Keep an Eye On

Freedom’s decline. Less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in what Freedom House describes as “free” countries according to the think tank’s latest report, the lowest proportion since 1995. The drop was driven in part by the designation of India as only “partly free,” in response to the government’s increasingly anti-Muslim position and a crackdown on dissent. In the ranking of 151 countries, Freedom House found that roughly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country where rights and freedoms declined over the past year.

U.S. war powers. A bipartisan pair of U.S. Senators have introduced a bill to enhance the power of Congress to authorize military actions, following the Biden administration’s decision to bomb Iranian-linked targets in Syria last week. The bill would repeal two authorizations for the use of military force, in place since 1991 and 2002 respectively, that have been used by successive presidents as legal pretexts for military action in the region.

Israel’s oil spill. Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel has blamed Iran for causing a major oil spill on Israel’s Mediterranean coastline last month, citing the findings of a two-week investigation into its cause. Gamliel said the spill was traced to a Libyan tanker that had recently stopped at an Iranian port. Haaretz reports that Israeli naval and intelligence officials expressed skepticism about Gamliel’s claims, which come three weeks before an election, and said they were not involved in the investigation.

Odds and Ends

Thailand’s navy saved four cats on Tuesday in a daring rescue mission after a sharp-eyed sailor spotted the felines on a sinking ship. The navy had previously evacuated the vessel’s human crew before noticing the cats huddled on a wooden beam while inspecting the ship for fuel leaks. A Thai sailor swam to the cats’ rescue, perching them on his shoulders while his team pulled him by a rope to safety. The cats are now in the care of their saviors at the navy command post on Koh Lipe island.

That’s it for today.

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The Missing Realism of Biden’s Pro-LGBTQ Foreign Policy

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People wave a rainbow flag as they celebrate the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in West Hollywood, California, on Nov. 7, 2020. DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

In nearly 70 countries, homosexuality is a criminal offense. In Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, parts of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, the death penalty is among the punitive legal options for same-sex conduct. In five more countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates—there are conflicting legal arguments about potential penalties, but execution is on the table.

This is rightly considered a human rights dilemma across the West. In the United States, it is also now treated as a foreign-policy issue.

In 2019, U.S. foreign aid to the 11 nations listed above exceeded $7.4 billion with billions of dollars more authorized in arms sales. It may have been with that in mind that President Joe Biden issued a memorandum in February declaring LGBTQ rights a foreign-policy priority. In the memo, Biden directed “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights” of the LGBTQ community and to combat foreign governments’ criminalization of it. He also required U.S. agencies to consider the impact of programs on LGBTQ rights when making funding decisions, promised swift responses when rights abuses occur abroad, and ordered a 100-day review to rescind old policies inconsistent with the memo.

This is an impressive litany and consistent with Biden’s campaign promises. And the most direct path forward would be to work with Congress to begin conditioning some foreign assistance and arms sales on the decriminalization of the LGBTQ community around the world. But the administration is also in danger of overpromising. Delivering consistent and effective defenses of global LGBTQ rights is going to be tough—and, in some cases, impossible.

Anti-LGBTQ transgressions are, of course, only one expression of entire political systems devoted to wholesale violations of human rights. In China, millions of Uighurs languish in concentration camps. Iran regularly executes minors and imprisons dissidents, and Tehran-sponsored terrorists routinely attack civilian populations around the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned women protesting their right to drive and charged them with treason, even after the driving ban was lifted. The Kremlin has taken to trying to kill political opponents with internationally banned chemical weapons. It should be little surprise that the regimes that treat such crimes as a legitimate method of securing their domestic authority also include vulnerable LGBTQ individuals among their targets. Indeed, it may be impossible to fully guarantee their protection in any world where such regimes continue to exist.

That’s not to suggest focused efforts to protect LGBTQ people aren’t capable of making a difference. But here, too, the politics are complicated. The current composition of the United Nations Human Rights Council includes three states with the death penalty as an option for same-sex activity, with another 11 having lesser but still criminal penalties. In countries like Yemen, which in 2019 received nearly $700 million in U.S. foreign assistance, the United States possesses powerful leverage. In theory, tying some of that aid to LGBTQ decriminalization could cause meaningful change.

But it’s not that simple. Take the Yemen example: The country has been mired in a devastating conflict since 2015, with 24 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance. In the hierarchy of priorities, ending the conflict is the easiest path to saving the greatest number of lives and thus will always be the priority for most citizens and their government. Even if the United States could quickly resolve the humanitarian crisis (a difficult ask), Yemeni society is staunchly anti-LGBTQ—trying do more than just incrementally liberalize Yemen in the midst of famine and conflict will be a Sisyphean task. Many devout Muslim leaders insist their faith is incompatible with LGBTQ rights. While some Islamic groups based in the West have started to adopt a softer tone, globally many have not. The Saudi state security agency has denounced homosexuality as extremism (along with feminism), and the supreme leader of Iran recently stated his belief that “there is no worst form of moral degeneration than [homosexuality].”

Even in Europe, there is a real risk that pushing countries such as Hungary (where same-sex conduct has been legal for decades) to recognize gender changes and same-sex marriage under the law could result in a backlash. (Less than half of Hungarians polled by the Pew Research Center said homosexuality should be accepted by society.) Eastern European culture wars are very real. Indeed, Russia is lurking in the wings and positioning itself as a defender of so-called traditional values in order to exploit U.S. pressure for liberalization to its advantage. For example, laws passed in Hungary in May and December 2020, respectively, that ban legally changing one’s “sex at birth” and define marriage and adoption rights as exclusively heterosexual mimic Russia’s summer constitutional amendments and earlier laws. Standing up for marginalized communities to ensure their safety is a necessary mission, but pushing conservative and divided societies too hard too fast could result in even more regressive laws.

All of this argues for the United States to be thoughtful in its strategy of protecting LGBTQ rights. Trying to force societies to legalize same-sex marriage and gender changes (in addition to decriminalization) is all too often labeled as cultural imperialism. Broader acceptance of these sensitive issues has to happen organically to be successful. After all, the United States itself did not legalize same-sex marriage nationwide until 2015.

Nonetheless, speed bumps on the road to greater global LGBTQ freedoms cannot be an excuse to do nothing, which has generally been the U.S. approach. The right choice is not revolution. Rather, it is finding a ratchet that works: For countries receiving U.S. assistance or purchasing U.S. arms, it is right to demand that the death penalty for homosexuality be put aside. Going forward, more aggressive advocacy may well pay off. Just over seven months ago, Sudan abolished both flogging and the death penalty as punishments for same-sex relations. There is more to do, and the United States should set aside support for local activists who are working to abolish anti-LGBTQ practices.

In the end, human rights promotion must be about marking success, not about political signaling at home. The challenge ahead consists of translating a genuine and legitimate commitment into global policies that work.

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Stimulus Is an Environmental Disaster Waiting to Happen

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Wind power generators are enveloped in a smoky sky near the Millard fire on July 15, 2006 near Cabazon, California. David McNew/Getty Images

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, countries around the world face an extraordinary conundrum. Unemployment is at record levels, and poverty is on the rise. Most governments believe the only tool they have at their disposal to address this crisis is to do everything possible to rev up the engines of economic growth in desperate hope of creating new jobs and restoring livelihoods.

This might seem reasonable enough at face value; after all, we’ve become accustomed to believing that growth is the cure to virtually every economic woe we encounter. But in attempting to solve one crisis, this approach makes it much more difficult to address another, more pressing emergency—the crisis of climate breakdown.

We are seeing this happen already. In their efforts to stimulate growth, many governments are slashing the very regulations that we need to be strengthening to reduce detrimental environmental impact. More conscientious governments are proposing stimulus packages that aim to be green. But even in those cases, we run up against a deeper, more fundamental problem: The more we grow the economy, the more energy it requires, and as energy use rises, it becomes much more difficult to accomplish a sufficiently rapid transition to renewables.

To keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius without relying on speculative negative emissions technologies, high-income nations need to be cutting emissions by at least 10 percent per year. There is no scenario in which this is feasible to achieve while growing the economy at usual rates, given the relationship between growth and energy. For this reason, scientists—thousands of them—have called on the world’s governments to abandon GDP growth as an objective and focus on human well-being and ecological stability instead.

But this leaves us with a hard question: What about jobs? How can we possibly hope to address mass unemployment without economic growth? Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution. We can fix the problem directly without needing additional growth by introducing a progressive, public job guarantee program, as proposed by economists like Stephanie Kelton, Pavlina Tcherneva, and a growing chorus of others. The idea is that anyone who signs up can train to do dignified, socially useful work (the opposite of “bullshit jobs”) and be paid at a living wage.

This would end unemployment and ensure good livelihoods for all, thus solving the immediate social crisis; but it would also allow us to mobilize the labor that’s needed for an ecological transition. There’s a lot of work to be done toward this end, and it needs to be done quickly. We need to ramp up renewable energy capacity by installing solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. We need to retrofit houses to improve insulation and replace gas boilers. We need to restore degraded ecosystems, plant forests, and rewild land. We need to expand public transportation networks. And we need to shift to regenerative farming methods to restore soils and biodiversity, sequester carbon, and provide healthy, local food. All of this requires labor, and it’s not going to happen on its own. We need a public program run both at a national level (for big projects like railways, power lines, and national forests) as well as at a decentralized community level (to meet specific local needs).

With a public job guarantee program, we can transform existing unemployment centers from grim places that are designed to humiliate people into hopeful, life-changing places that give people real skills and empower them to contribute to the most important collective projects of our generation. By paying a living wage, we can not only put an end to poverty, but we can also set a standard that the rest of the economy will have to follow. Private firms would have to pay living wages too—and would have to offer equally enriching work—if they want to retain staff. Why would anyone agree to flip burgers at McDonald’s for poverty wages when they could make a real living doing something more meaningful and important?

We can also use the job guarantee program to shorten the working week. If we set hours at 30 instead of the usual 40, private employers would be under pressure to follow suit. Research has shown that shortening working hours is a powerful way to reduce emissions and has a positive impact on people’s health and quality of life.

This approach would also strengthen the bargaining power of labor and therefore go a long way to reducing inequality—another major crisis of our age. And reducing inequality helps us further reduce the need for perpetual economic growth. Politicians say we need growth to improve people’s lives; but the problem isn’t that there’s a deficit of income, but that it’s all captured at the top. By distributing existing wealth more fairly, high-income nations can improve people’s lives right now—without any growth at all. A job guarantee program can help us get there.

This is a much more rational, ecologically coherent way to address the present economic crisis. Trying to grow the economy to create jobs is effectively busywork. Almost by definition, jobs created this way are in industries we don’t really need to expand, and expanding them, in turn, creates pressures for needless consumption. A job guarantee program does the opposite: It mobilizes labor and resources around things that our communities—and ecology—actually need and which the private sector is unlikely or unable to provide.

For those who support the idea of a basic income, there’s no reason such a policy could not be integrated in some form alongside a job guarantee program. But the latter enables us to mobilize labor for an ecological transition, and it has the benefit of being resoundingly popular. A YouGov survey found that 72 percent of people in Britain support a job guarantee program and even in the United States, it polls as high as 69 percent. Better yet, it’s not expensive to implement because it partly pays for itself. Drawing on data from the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Tcherneva reported that rolling out a job guarantee program in the United States would cost only about 1 to 2 percent of its GDP, and it could be funded with the very same mechanism that governments are presently using to bail out corporations and prop up stock markets: quantitative easing but this time for people and planet.

Having a job guarantee program would transform how we think about the economy. For too long, we’ve been locked into believing that all sectors of the economy must grow all the time, regardless of whether or not we actually need them and how much destruction they might cause. Why? Because jobs. We even find it difficult to contemplate closing down things like coal mines because of the impact it might have on employment. Indeed, this is why governments have come under pressure to bail out oil companies and airlines in the middle of a climate emergency—to prevent the chaos of mass layoffs.

The job guarantee program takes this question off the table. It cuts through the Gordian knot. We know that if we want to achieve a rapid transition to renewables, high-income nations need to reduce aggregate energy use. This means having an open, democratic conversation about scaling down ecologically destructive and socially expendable parts of the economy (things like fossil fuels, SUVs, McMansions, private jets, personal arms, advertising, and planned obsolescence). The job guarantee program allows us to do this without worrying about the specter of unemployment and ensures affected workers can retrain for jobs in a better, cleaner, fairer economy without skipping a beat.

In this sense, the job guarantee program is one of the single most transformative policies that a government could implement. It would liberate us from the straitjacket of growthism and free us to build an economy that’s organized around human well-being and ecological regeneration rather than around perpetual expansion.